Two New York Managers Try Not to Blow It

Bobby Valentine, the manager of the New York Mets, can’t help but become a media critic. He can read about his flaws in seven metro-area newspapers and hear himself psychoanalyzed on sports-talk radio every day. He’s a bright guy, he picks up on stuff, and one of the things he has recognized is that there are people out there who just don’t like him.

Call him paranoid–and many people do–but then again, even paranoids have enemies.

For example, Newsday ‘s Marty Noble, the senior writer on the Mets beat, has been telling colleagues: “I have seven words. If I can verify Bobby Valentine said them, I can get Bobby Valentine fired.”

“Isn’t that incredible?” Mr. Valentine said the other day, an hour before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. He was sitting behind a desk in his office at Shea Stadium, picking at a piece of coffee cake. The office walls bore the trappings of managerial power: On his right there was a display of photographs of himself with various Presidents, and on his left an erasable board with the names of all his players listed in Magic Marker.

Years ago, he was nicknamed Top Step for his habit of standing on the dugout’s top step, in view of the fans. But now that he’s in full view of the raucous New York sports world, he has learned that attention comes with a price. (When he was told The Observer was examining the relationship between the media and the team, he crossed himself.) “When I hear crap in this market that is nothing more than things that were said about me or concluded 10 years ago, about me wanting to be the star or any of that bullshit, or controlling people in the clubhouse …” He smirked and shook his head. “I used to do all that stuff. But I’ve changed. I’ve learned.”

However much he may have changed, there’s no question that Mr. Valentine finds himself a central figure in what is developing into a nifty soap opera in Flushing Meadows. Unlike the bland and infallible Yankees, the Mets are a study in idiosyncrasy and conflict. Last year’s overachieving crew of nobodies has evolved into an underachieving band of misfits struggling to stay in the playoff hunt amid some mild but entertaining controversy in the clubhouse, the front office and the press box.

Much of the drama revolves around the team’s two catchers: Mike Piazza and Todd Hundley. Mr. Piazza is the glamour boy and run producer who came to the Mets in a late-May trade. He’s a rich kid angling to become the highest-paid player in baseball.

Todd Hundley is the beloved homegrown Met, a pitcher’s catcher who surprised everyone in 1996 by hitting 41 home runs, the most ever by a catcher. This year, however, Mr. Hundley found himself out of commission until early July because of elbow surgery. But when he returned to the lineup, he found himself in left field. Mr. Piazza had taken Mr. Hundley’s place.

During the Mets’ recent home stand, the precarious situation soured on both men, even as they continued to be gracious toward each other. On July 16, Mr. Hundley had a horrendous outing in left field, making a series of game-breaking gaffes. Mr. Piazza heard a cascade of boos from the fans when he failed to drive in runs in key situations.

The presence of two genuine stars who play the same position has called attention to divisions that may not quite match the famously quarrelsome Yankees of the late 1970’s, but threaten to bust open if the team–and the two catchers–fail to live up to expectations. The unexpected arrival of Mr. Piazza was hailed as a gift from the baseball gods two months ago. Now, however, with the team in a severe tailspin, the team and its chroniclers are debating the effects on the Mets’ team chemistry.

“The natural reaction is, a human will take a side,” Mr. Valentine said. He looked over his shoulder at his roster, then out the door into the clubhouse, where some players were horsing around. “They are all humans out there. If a reporter asks, ‘What do you think about Piazza–would you rather have Todd?’ or ‘What do you think of Todd coming back–would you rather have Mike?’ they will take a side. And that’s not even an option today. It’s a future issue. But it does affect them.”

High-Wire Act

The two men certainly have different personas, and they were on display at Shea during the Phillies series in mid-July. There was Mr. Hundley pausing to sign autographs for a pack of kids, letting a cigarette dangle from his lips to free up both hands. And there was Mr. Piazza, lounging on a couch in the clubhouse in his Nike slippers, ignoring a tape of Braves-Mets pitching sequences to watch a bootleg human-calamity video (rampaging horses, high-speed motorcycle crashes, etc.) with his new teammates. At one point, when the video showed a suicidal man falling hundreds of feet from a giant radio tower, Mr. Piazza said, earnestly, “Life can’t be that bad. Can it?”

Not yet. But if the two catchers are the leading men in a Shea Stadium melodrama, there’s an assortment of supporting players–the team’s owners, less celebrated players and beat writers–who are warming to their respective roles. It’s easy to believe that if the Mets continue to disappoint, if Mr. Piazza doesn’t start piling on the R.B.I.’s, and if Mr. Hundley doesn’t stop muffing line drives, Shea Stadium will quickly become the Flushing Zoo. Mr. Valentine, who squeezed 88 wins out of a less talented group last year, will get to find out who his allies are, and how much juice they have. And Marty Noble may not have to call upon his seven words.

The Mets’ co-owners, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, seem to have established themselves on either side of the Hundley-Piazza divide. Mr. Doubleday, the white-shoe scion of the Doubleday publishing family who splits his time among Florida, Nantucket and Locust Valley, L.I., is a Piazza man. And Mr. Wilpon, the self-made real estate developer from Brooklyn, is a Hundley man.

It was Mr. Doubleday who ordered the Mets’ general manager, Steve Phillips, to make the trade for Mr. Piazza in response to the team’s anemic performance at the plate and at the turnstiles. After distancing himself from the day-to-day running of the team, Mr. Doubleday has, over the past 12 months, reasserted himself as an executive in charge.

Meanwhile, Mr. Wilpon wasted little time positioning himself as a Hundley partisan. A few days after the trade, Mr. Wilpon invited Mr. Hundley to his home in Glen Cove, L.I., and gave him his 1986 World Series ring. The gesture said a lot–said more, really, than Mr. Wilpon’s subsequent attempts to claim partial credit for the Piazza trade in the press.

At the end of the current season, Mr. Piazza can be a free agent, meaning he can sign with whichever team he chooses. In order to keep him in Queens, the Mets probably will have to offer him a contract at least as lucrative as the one Mr. Piazza turned down earlier this year in his last days as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers: six years for $85 million, which would make him baseball’s highest-paid player. And if the Mets shell out that kind of money, they’ll have to figure out what to do with Todd Hundley.

Unlike their crosstown rivals in the Bronx, the Mets are an interesting bunch: John Olerud, the steady veteran who rarely speaks, hits for average and wears his modified batting helmet in the field (he had brain surgery nine years ago); Brian McRae, who spends an inordinate amount of time strutting around the clubhouse naked and wants to retire early to start a career as a broadcaster; Rey Ordonez, the Cuban émigré and dazzling shortstop who deems mere grounders an affront to his glove. There’s pitcher Rick Reed, who defied skeptics by becoming an All-Star pitcher at age 33, pitcher Bill Pulsipher, the once-glittering prospect who’s on Prozac, and outfielder Bernard Gilkey, who refuses to wear glasses or contact lenses even as his batting average wilts.

Choosing Sides

It was into this gashouse gang that Mr. Piazza, a bona fide big league star, landed, and the team’s dynamics changed. The humans started picking sides.

Days after the Piazza trade, a mysterious story emerged: Someone in the Mets’ front office was said to be concerned about Mr. Hundley’s drinking habits, though no one was quoted saying so.

Three writers–Mr. Noble, Larry Rocca of The Star-Ledger and David Waldstein of the New York Post –learned of this concern at the same time, but held off until they could raise the issue with Mr. Hundley himself, given the sensitive nature of the information and the cynical timing of the leak (just after Mr. Piazza was brought in to fill Mr. Hundley’s position).

Somehow, though, Mr. Noble contacted Mr. Hundley first. On Memorial Day, he let the catcher and his agent know that a story about the Mets’ worries over his drinking, written by someone other than Mr. Noble, would be coming out the following day. Mr. Noble was giving Mr. Hundley a chance to respond.

Seth Levinson, the agent, confirmed that it was his and Mr. Hundley’s understanding that somebody was going to publish a Hundley drinking story. “I was advised by Marty Noble that … there was going to be an article written by a New York writer or a story out of Los Angeles that would reveal the information provided by [an] anonymous Met,” Mr. Levinson said.

Mr. Noble replied that “it would be an inaccurate choice of words to say I led him to believe another story was coming out. I knew other people knew. That’s as much as I’m going to say.”

In any case, Mr. Hundley gave Mr. Noble an interview. He angrily denied he had a problem. The other two reporters learned that Mr. Noble was moving ahead with his story, and went with reaction stories of their own. So on May 26, three newspapers published stories reacting to an initial story that actually never appeared, and may even have never existed.

Appalled and embarrassed by the reports, Mr. Phillips, the Mets’ general manager, vowed to find the leaker, but many Met-watchers suspected it was an empty vow. Joel Sherman, the New York Post ‘s baseball columnist, asserted in a column that Mr. Phillips had “neither the spine nor the juice” to finger the source, essentially because the information probably came from a top executive in the Mets’ management. Mr. Sherman also described an unnamed reporter as “unethical pond scum.”

Everyone close to the Mets knew that Mr. Sherman was referring to Mr. Noble and the way in which Mr. Noble had pursued the Hundley story. (When questioned by The Observer , Mr. Sherman would not identify the pond scum to whom he was referring.)

Hey, What Are You Looking At?

“Motherfucking” is the baseball term for back-stabbing, and for beat reporters, motherfucking means bad-mouthing other reporters to those reporters’ sources. It is one of the profession’s cardinal sins, along with “cock-watching and looking at other writers’ screens,” as one writer put it. (Also forbidden: cheering in the press box and giving off any appearance that you actually enjoy what you do.)

This wasn’t quite motherfucking, but it was close enough to touch off a nice little war in the press box. In a letter to the president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Mr. Noble accused Mr. Sherman of threatening the Mets’ general manager with bad press during an earlier conversation over sources. Presumably, he found out about these threats from the G.M. himself, who most likely saw Mr. Sherman’s critique of the hunt for the Hundley leak as a delivery on the threat. It all became public, and the humans started picking sides.

And now, many of Mr. Noble’s peers seem to have it out for him. And it’s easy to believe that Mr. Valentine may be fanning the flames.

“After you’re here awhile,” Mr. Valentine said, “you, or at least I, get a feel for the people who have an agenda and for the people who have a job. If someone has a job, I don’t ever keep them from doing it as well as they can, but when people have agendas, I try to keep them from fulfilling their prophecies–about my players, about me, about my team.”

“There are these little wars on the beat all the time,” said one writer. “What’s unique about the Mets is, Valentine is an original. He changes things. He’s bright and manipulative and suffers fools poorly.”

And he does not get along with Mr. Noble. The two men don’t speak to each other. This is not entirely unusual for Mr. Valentine, who has historically chosen to befriend some reporters while making enemies out of others. But it is unusual for Mr. Noble, who has always had solid working relationships with the Mets’ managers, and who, after covering baseball in New York for 24 years, has such close contacts inside the organization that other Mets writers gleefully recall how in spring training this year, during a basketball game between the media and the Mets’ management, he showed up and rooted loudly for the team brass.

Mr. Noble insisted he is not out to get Mr. Valentine. “You can’t find one piece I’ve written that is out to get him,” Mr. Noble said. “My stories are objective.”

But he still has his seven words. What might they be?

“Like I’m gonna tell you?” Mr. Noble said.

If Mr. Valentine knows, he’s not telling, either.